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‘Competition is very good for in-house counsel’

The increase in variety and competition for law firms contesting to be on legal services panels is “a great thing” for in-house counsel briefing firms, one GC opined.

user iconLauren Croft 18 April 2023 Corporate Counsel
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Michael Guilday is the general counsel for the Sydney Fish Market. Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, he discussed how and why briefing individual lawyers, rather than briefing firms, for your legal services panels might be a more optimal approach for in-house counsel.

In terms of how he came to the conclusion that briefing individuals rather than firms was more beneficial, Mr Guilday said it came down to his own observations.

“This certainly wasn’t a deliberate strategy that I planned and set about executing. It was simply an observation about my experience and what I’ve observed in the legal market from the work that I’m involved in over the past couple of years, which of course, has been changing very consistently. It’s changed dramatically in some areas, and I think it’s really been very interesting to watch,” he opined.


“And so, really, what I’m trying to get about is obviously, I don’t brief individuals. I still brief the firms, but I increasingly look to the individuals themselves as being pretty much the primary marker that I’ll look to in determining which firm I allocate legal work to as part of my role.”

Mr Guilday’s role mainly involves briefing out legal work to law firms and other lawyers — and increasingly, he acts as the client in the relationship on behalf of the Sydney Fish Market.

“I think as in-house counsel, it gives us a unique perspective on the delivery of legal services, and when I talk to other in-house counsel, it’s one of the things that we talk about the most. It’s great that on this show, you showcase perspectives from different in-house counsel, of which I’m just one perspective amongst many. But I increasingly observe from my work that there are standout individuals at firms that are really go-to people,” he added.

“If I can’t work with those people, I will look to other firms, to individuals that I know there, rather than the reputation or the gravitas of the firm itself. For me, it’s all about the individual. One of the really interesting things which I’m increasingly seeing is the fragmentation of larger law practices.

“That means that increasingly, I’m seeing standout lawyers from having large law firm backgrounds either joining smaller practices or in fact, practising on their own account essentially, setting up boutique law firms, and providing really standout client service and providing that service at reasonable rates.”

In terms of companies historically choosing firms based on size, or whether they’re a big player in the market, and then being assigned a partner or senior associate, Mr Guilday said that while this shouldn’t happen, it definitely does.

“I suffer from this as much as I think anyone else would; there’s a huge unconscious bias in the way that I work. I’ve grown up from a large law firm background myself, and I think I’ve always had, as an in-house lawyer, a really strong, either conscious or at times unconscious, bias towards working with large law firms. It’s only through, as I’ve progressed along in my career and had experience working with different people, I’ve had a chance to observe different types of ways of delivering legal services,” he explained.

“Having the experience of working with different types of legal services providers, whether they be boutique law firms, alternative legal service providers, and even professional practices that practice other disciplines other than just legal services, has been a huge eye-opener. I think there’s been very significant developments in the maturity and the sophistication of those practices that has meant they are now genuine competitors for many types of work with the traditional large law firms.”

This unconscious bias, according to Mr Guilday, has also meant that some of the larger firms in the market may not have been changing and evolving as much as they should have — and assuming they’ll be able to remain on legal services panels due to their size and reputation.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work in some different jurisdictions around the world, including in the United Kingdom and also in Hong Kong, as well as practising as a private practice lawyer and, more recently, an in-house lawyer in Australia. So, I’ve seen the profession at different stages and over what now is more than a 20-year period of practice.

“I think it would be wrong to say that large law firms haven’t developed and haven’t transformed to meet the changing needs of in-house counsel because they have. But it’s about the pace of change; we all know that it can be harder for larger organisations to adapt more quickly to, for example, changes in technology and ways of working,” he outlined.

“So, I think it’s just a case of smaller practices sometimes are in a position where they can adapt to change more quickly, or they’re less constrained perhaps by practices that might be historical practices in place by larger practises. I know that everyone’s trying to do the very best that they can, but I’m increasingly seeing strong competition, more than I have ever before, from different types of legal providers.”

The Sydney Fish Market has used both smaller firms and BigLaw firms — but Mr Guilday noted that there remains a lot of competition and change in the market moving forward.

“We’re not a large organisation ourselves. So, in some ways, it lends itself for us to be working with smaller legal providers who can align themselves more closely with us. But historically, we have used lots of larger firms as well, and we’ll continue to do that for many types of work. It’s just that the diversity of providers that we’re using here is constantly changing.

“We’re constantly using different firms, and we’re constantly seeing new opportunities emerge. We’re seeing whole teams move from one firm to another for different reasons. Sometimes, we move with them; sometimes, we don’t. We’re seeing people break away from larger firms to set up their own practices, and we follow them in some cases. I think it’s a great thing,” he added.

“Competition is very good for in-house counsel. We certainly don’t want there to be less competition. And so, the fragmentation in that sense and the challenge that’s been presented by new entrants in the market, I think, can only be a good thing.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Michael Guilday, click below:

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